Bluegrass Festival packs The Emerson

The band left the stage with the crowd chanting “One more song!”

Whether out of a hasty contemplation or merely for dramatic pause, the Lil’ Smokies swept back up and performed not one but two encore songs to close the Ninth Annual Bozeman Bluegrass Festival at the Emerson on Saturday, Nov. 14.

It all started with the Bridger Creek Boys, who brought traditional showmanship and class, playing such classics as John Prine’s “Paradise” as well as some of the Bozeman-based group’s original tunes. The group hosts the festival each year and celebrated the event by handing out free copies of their CD.

Matt Broughton, who plays fiddle and mandolin, is the founding organizer of the event. Broughton originally envisioned the festival as multi-day event at Bridger Bowl each summer.

“Unfortunately, rules prohibit camp-out events,” Broughton said. “When I first began organizing the event nine years ago, the only real options were at bars.”

Although the festival is not as grandiose as he might have envisioned, Broughton sees the event as “a great success, since people in the audience were feeling an intense amount of joy.”

The Bridger Creek Boys are the resident band of Colonel Black’s, playing every Monday night at 7 p.m. According to Broughton, the band is greatly influenced by bluegrass legends like David Grisman and Bill Monroe, but also rock n’ roll bands like the Rolling Stones and Little Feat. With a loyal following and endless talent, the boys rocked the stage.

Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs followed the Bridger Creek Boys, with The Hollowtops delivering the penultimate performance for the Lil’ Smokies to close out the night.

Within the world of bluegrass there are some who perceive a conflict between old and new. Bridger Dunnagan and Alex Kuokov, two members of The Hollowtops, noted how some musicians are against the modern folk movement. “The dichotomy between true-grasses and new-grasses has gotten a lot of press,” Dunnagan commented, “but I think the best bands know how to play and respect traditional bluegrass, but aren’t afraid to branch out and shake things up.”

“There is a sentiment that the new bands are harming the bluegrass tradition,” Koukov agreed, “but the best bands are using the good parts of every genre. All good music has similar elements, and the tricky part is figuring out how to fuse different genres together.”

The Hollowtops demonstrated the idea at the concert by performing a bluegrass cover of Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk,’ driving the listeners wild.

“Bluegrass has a versatile quiver of instruments, which lets us cover nearly everything,” Koukov explained, “We play covers of rock n’ roll, pop tunes, country songs and even some classical pieces.”

“We have played Kesha’s ‘Timber’ and people loved it,” Dunnagan chimed in, “Covering pop and rock songs makes bluegrass palatable and available to a larger group of people.”

The Lil’ Smokies also laid down a bluegrass cover of the The Eagles ‘Take it Easy’ which had everyone singing along. The Missoula based group won the 2015 Telluride Bluegrass Band Competition and it was easy to see with their raw talent, refined style and genuine character.

Once Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs took the stage, chairs were pushed back and people rushed to the front to dance and sing along. The floor of the sold-out event was flooded with people and the Emerson became cramped with listeners and dancers alike.

“Rocky Mountain Bluegrass is a cousin of the original Appalachian style,” Broughton said, “it’s still acoustic string music, but a different monster. Bands out here like to incorporate rock and pop, and you heard a lot of that on Saturday.”

“The Bluegrass scene in Bozeman is quaint,” Kuokov noted, “there is definitely a growing interest though, which is encouraging.”

Many people take issue with the lack of venues in Bozeman. At the concert it was clear that there was not enough space for everyone. The dancers got in the way of people sitting, and at times it was difficult for some to hear the band over the sounds of people talking and noisy children running.

“I’m just one family man turned musician,” Broughton said, “I don’t have deep enough pockets to get a larger event going, but I’m glad we are able to put this event on so everyone can enjoy the music.”